FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Say what you will about the off-field distractions for the Steelers, who started the week embroiled in a controversy created by All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown (he posted coach Mike Tomlin’s speech after a divisional-round win over the Chiefs) and were awakened by the hotel fire alarm the night before Sunday’s game.
But it was the absence of one of their best players, if not the best, that had perhaps the biggest effect on the game.
All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, who was coming off a spectacular regular season and had a combined 337 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the Steelers’ first two playoff victories, suffered a groin injury early in the game and couldn’t come back with the same effectiveness. He spent most of the rest of the game on the bench and was replaced by backup De’Angelo Williams.
“It was on the second play of the game,” Bell said of when the injury occurred. “Obviously, I got banged up, but I still tried to give it a go. I still tried to play. It just got progressively worse. There was a run I had, I think it was a draw play, and I ended up getting two or three yards, but I couldn’t be myself.”
Bell finished with six carries for 20 yards. Williams had 34 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries.
“I had no burst anymore,” Bell said of how he felt after getting hurt. “I felt like I was holding the team back. Obviously, DeAngelo came in and did a good job, but I couldn’t do it anymore. This is a game I wanted to play in. This is a game I was looking forward to.”
Bell returned for a play in the second quarter but clearly was laboring. He didn’t play the rest of the game.
“I knew I couldn’t be myself,” he said. “[On the second-quarter run], I had a gap. There was a nice seam. I just felt like I couldn’t get there. I had to come out of the game. It’s real disappointing. We work so hard to get here, and I felt like I had done a lot to help us get here. To not play and not go to battle with my teammates, it hurt.”